Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu appears set for a fourth term as prime minister after his right-wing Likud party swept past its main rival, the center-left Zionist Union, in what has been a hard-fought election.
Local media described the showing as a “huge win” for Netanyahu, although he would need the support of other parties to form a coalition government.
Official results gave Likud 29 seats compared with 24 for Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union in the 120-member parliament, Reuters reported. Exit polls had indicated that the race ended in a dead heat.
Netanyahu swiftly claimed victory late on Tuesday, while Herzog said “everything is still open”.
By Wednesday morning, with results in from 99 percent of polling stations, Likud had powered past the Zionist Union and Netanyahu seemed set to get the nod from Israel’s president to try to put together a coalition.
A fourth term for Netanyahu would make him Israel’s longest serving leader. He can tap far-right and religious parties — his traditional allies for support — but will also need to enlist centrists who have been non-committal, the news agency said.
Netanyahu pulled off the feat with a pitch for ultranationalist votes in the final days of the campaign.
Seeking to persuade supporters of smaller right-wing parties to “come home” to Likud, Netanyahu promised more building of Jewish settlements. Cautioning that yielding territory would open the way for attacks against Israel by Islamist militants, Netanyahu said the Palestinians would not get their own state if he were re-elected.
Those sweeping promises, if carried out, would further isolate Israel from the United States and the European Union, which believe a peace deal must accommodate Palestinian demands for a state in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, the report said.
Netanyahu has focused on Iran’s nuclear program and militant Islam. But many Israelis had said they were tiring of the message, and the center-left campaigned on social and economic issues, surging in polls before election day.
The Obama administration has been angry with Netanyahu since he addressed the US Congress two weeks ago at the invitation of Republican lawmakers, to oppose US nuclear negotiations with Iran.
“Against all odds: a great victory for Likud,” a beaming Netanyahu told cheering supporters in a speech at party election headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Turnout was around 72 percent, higher than the last election in 2013.
After consultation with all parties, it will be up to President Reuven Rivlin to name the candidate he deems best placed to try to form a coalition. The nominee will have up to 42 days to do so.
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